Within the razor wire fences of Folsom State Prison, Andreawanna Clemmons stared at a computer, filling her screen and mind with architectural designs.
“I’m working on a homeless shelter,” said Clemmons, 25, who is serving time for her role in a deadly shooting in Sacramento in 2012. Beside her, inmate Terese Sheridan, 36, also incarcerated for a gun crime, was designing a hotel.
Prison job training in California has gone far beyond learning how to craft license plates and bookcases.
Today, the state’s Prison Industry Authority is helping inmates learn highly valued technical skills that make them immediately employable once they serve their time and are released to the outside world.
This past week, corrections officials unveiled a new technology training center where Folsom Women’s Facility inmates can become experts in computer systems that will help them get jobs in architecture, engineering, construction and other fields.
The center, inside a manufactured building designed and assembled by Folsom Prison inmates, is sponsored by the software corporation Autodesk, which helps train offenders to use their products and find good jobs upon parole.
Autodesk’s Nancy Tremblay said the project represents the first time the company has worked with offenders inside prison walls, though Autodesk has trained paroled felons elsewhere. Currently, 56 women at Folsom are enrolled in the program.
“There is a great skills gap in this area, particularly among females,” Tremblay explained as she watched the Folsom inmates at their workstations, manipulating software programs including Revit, Inventor and AutoCAD. Training time for these computer systems can range from several months to up to a year.
Tremblay acknowledged that some employers are reluctant to hire someone with a felony record. “But (the program) is not about the offender,” she said. “It’s about the citizen. Someone with the proper skill set is going to find an employer that needs their services.” About 90 percent of former inmates trained in Autodesk programs have gotten jobs, and 82 percent of them are still employed after a year, she said.
Numbers like those translate into lower recidivism rates, said Charles Pattillo, general manager of the Prison Industry Authority. Housing a prisoner in California costs taxpayers about $72,000 a year, he noted.
“These offenders are getting out, and getting jobs, so the savings is huge,” he said. “They’re not coming back into the system.”
The PIA, created in 1982 to provide employment opportunities for offenders, offers work assignments to about 8,000 inmates and manages more than 100 operations throughout California. Inmates craft furniture, sew garments and fashion signs and license plates. The goal is to give prisoners job skills, good work habits and basic education to prepare them for success in the outside world.
Job assignments are voluntary, and prisoners must apply to participate. They are paid a nominal wage, generally up to $1 per hour. The items they produce are sold to state, county and municipal offices and nonprofit groups.
High technology training programs, which Folsom Prison began offering in 2014, are relatively new but the success rates are beyond encouraging, said Pattillo. The overall recidivism rate for felons in California is around 50 percent, he said. It is lower than 10 percent for inmates who participate in the training programs.
“I have a long list of employers who are hiring ladies literally right out of prison,” he said. They can immediately earn wages upward of $23 an hour at architectural and engineering firms, he added.
For the women incarcerated at Folsom, whose crimes range from from drug running to manslaughter, the training is a first step toward self-sufficiency, said Kathleen Allison, director of adult institutions for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“Most of these people don’t want to sell drugs for a living, but it’s all they know,” Allison said. “We’re on the cutting edge of technology here. We really want to give them a life skill that makes them employable on the first day they get out,” and allows them to support their families.
Inmates participating in the program talked of its impact on their emotional and psychological well being, saying it boosted their hopes for a future outside of prison.
“For me personally, it was a choice that I was going to do something worthwhile,” said Stephanie Ashton, 27, as she used a computer program to “install” tile inside a building on her screen. “I knew nothing about computers when I started this, and I have learned so much. I look at buildings and architecture and landscapes in a whole different way.” It was exciting to imagine living on the outside with so much knowledge at her disposal, she added.
Clemmons said the training is the impetus she needs to be a productive citizen once she is paroled, possibly in 2020. “I would never have thought that a prison would have something like this,” she said. “Prison will either break you or make you. I don’t want to come out of here the same person I was when I came in.’
“We are lucky, blessed and privileged,” Sheridan chimed in.
Debi Zuver, 49, is scheduled to walk out of the Folsom Women’s Facility a free woman in February. She has been locked up 17 years for manslaughter, she said, and will be leaving with marketable job skills and a positive attitude.
“I want to make sure I’m not living like I was living before,” she said, “and that I won’t be coming back.”